Today would have been Doris Lessing’s 100th birthday; she in fact died in 2013. Reading Lara Feigel’s Free Woman last year encouraged me to try more from Lessing, and I’m glad that I did so this month. I started with The Fifth Child, a horror novella for R.I.P., followed by the novel Lessing brought with her when she left Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England.
The Grass Is Singing (1950)
I had trouble believing that this novel a) was Lessing’s debut and b) is now nearly 70 years old. It felt both fresh and timeless, and I could see how it has inspired writing about the white experience in Africa ever since, especially a book like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, in which an English farmer and his son are haunted by the violent death of the young man’s mother back in Zambia 10 years ago.
For The Grass Is Singing begins with two sly words, “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. It’s a tease because in one sense there’s no mystery to this at all: we know from the first lines what happened to Mary. And yet we are drawn in, wondering why she was killed and how the Turners went from an idealistic young couple enthusiastic about their various money-making schemes – a shop, chickens, tobacco – to a jaded, distant pair struggling for their health, both mental and physical.
The breakdown of their marriage and the failure of their farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail, all while exposing (with neither judgment nor approval) how Anglos felt about the natives at that time.
There’s a sense in which this was all fated: Dick is weak, someone Mary pities rather than loves and respects; and Mary’s mixed-up feelings toward her black servants – fear, contempt, curiosity and attraction – were bound to lead to an explosion. The land itself seems to be conspiring against them, too, or is at least indifferent to their plans and dreams.
So many passages struck me for their effortless profundity. I cringed to see myself so clearly in Mary’s boredom and restlessness, along with her ambivalence about the idea of motherhood: “She hated the idea of a baby, when she thought of its helplessness, its dependence, the mess, the worry. But it would give her something to do.”
This was the fifth full-length book I’ve read by Lessing, and by far the best.
Alas, I had a Lessing DNF this month, too:
The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
This was shelved in with the memoirs in The Bookshop, Wigtown. I’m not blaming Mr. Bythell or his staff, as this would be a very easy shelving error to make, even for those well versed in literature. But I was disappointed to realize that it’s actually one of Lessing’s detached, dreamy dystopian novels. I tried really hard with this but couldn’t make it past page 48. There’s just not much detail to latch onto. You know that it is set in a vague but believable near future (London?) in which there has been political and social breakdown, followed by gangs, looting and fighting. The narrator hides out in her apartment and is able to live a fairly normal life (“We can get used to anything at all”), at least until an adolescent girl named Emily Cartright is deposited into her care. The novel still feels relevant – the comments on rumor and gossip being as important as news; the sense that the narrator’s generation has ruined things for Emily’s generation and should accept guilt and responsibility – but there is just no plot to speak of.
Next up for me from Lessing’s works will be at least one of her heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels.
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley
Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions.
The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read.
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement.
The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home
Do you ever find coincidental thematic connections in your reading?
It was a definite case of judging a book by its cover: I saw a photo of Fiona Melrose’s debut novel, Midwinter, on Twitter and – without reading much about it at all – sent off a quick request e-mail to the publisher. All I knew was that it was about a father and son, that it was set in Suffolk, that a fox featured somewhere, and that Zambia was involved somehow. But that was enough to convince me that this was a book I wanted to read.
I had assumed the title would refer to the novel’s setting; although it does take place during the colder months of the year, Midwinter is also the main characters’ last name. Landyn Midwinter and his twenty-year-old son, Vale, are farmers in the Suffolk countryside. They’re both joined and divided by the memory of Vale’s mum Cecilia’s violent death ten years ago in Zambia, where the family had gone to seek their fortune after money troubles on the English farm. Vale blames Landyn for Cessie’s murder, and the past still fuels explosions between them in the present day.
The novel opens with Vale and his best friend, Tom, who were raised like brothers, stealing a boat and going for a drunken nighttime sail. This scene reminded me of the cataclysmic maritime sections of Wyl Menmuir’s The Many and ends in near-disaster. Vale is fine, but as Tom spends the next weeks in hospital it becomes clear that he will not escape undamaged. Vale and Landyn don’t see eye to eye about what Vale owes his friend; they also disagree about Landyn’s sentimental attitude towards animals: farm dogs and chickens, as well as a vixen he is thrilled to see on his land, thinking of her as an emissary from his lost wife.
Vale and Landyn narrate the book in alternating first-person chapters. It’s their country voices and the father–son theme that drive the story. “It could never be the end for me and Vale,” Landyn says. “I didn’t have a choice in it. Been like that how many times since Cessie passed, all beaten and tired and nothing left.” And yet Vale “cut me right where he knew there was fresh meat, the type that doesn’t knit.” Landyn’s voice worked better for me, but I liked how the same themes crop up for both men as they go through the motions of everyday farming life: guilt over bad decisions, a hot temper, and awkwardness around women.
Past and present coexist stylishly through flashbacks to the Midwinters’ brief time in Africa, and there are several climactic scenes of animal deaths, one quite gruesome – something to keep in mind if you are sensitive to such things.
At a certain point, though, the novel started feeling repetitive to me. Some incidents are recounted from both points of view, but the repetition doesn’t add anything. I thought the book could stand to lose 40–60 pages – page 224 would have served as a perfectly good ending, for instance. In fact, the whole thing feels like an early draft: it’s surprisingly poorly edited in terms of punctuation, typos and compound words.
In all, I think this edition of Melrose’s debut novel doesn’t do her justice. Luckily, I was impressed enough by her elegant treatment of fraught relationships and ongoing guilt that I will still be looking out for her future work.
Other books (all by women!) this reminded me of:
- Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
- The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
- Shame by Melanie Finn [U.S. title: The Gloaming]
- The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Midwinter was published in the UK by Corsair on November 2nd. My thanks to Helen Upton of Little, Brown for the free review copy.